Monday, May 24, 2010

The Novice

In a time-honored story set in an ancient Himalayan kingdom, a novice monk was excited at the prospect of meeting his teacher for the first time. He was on fire with questions but sensed that this was not the time to ask them. Instead, he listened carefully to the teacher's instructions. They were brief and to the point. "Get up early tomorrow and climb to a cave you'll find at the top of this mountain. Sit from dawn to dusk and have no thoughts. Use any method you wish to banish thought. When the day is over, come and tell me how it went."

At dawn the next day the novice found the cave, made himself comfortable, and waited for his mind to settle. He thought that if he sat long enough it would become blank. Instead, his mind was crowded with thoughts. Soon he started to worry about failing the task he had been set. He tried to force the thoughts out of his mind, but that just produced more thoughts. He shouted at them to "Go away," but the words echoed noisily in the cave. He jumped up and down, held his breath, shook his head. Nothing seemed to work. He'd never known such a bombardment of thoughts in his life. At the end of the day he climbed back down, completely dispirited, wondering what his teacher's response would be. Perhaps he'd be dismissed as a failure, unsuitable for further training.

But the teacher just burst out laughing at the tale of his mental and physical gymnastics. "Very good ! You have tried really hard and done well. Tomorrow you should go back to the cave. Sit from dawn to dusk having nothing but thoughts. Think of anything you like all day long, but allow no gaps to occur between your thoughts." The novice was really pleased. This would be easy. He was bound to succeed. After all, "having thoughts" is what had been happening to him all day.

The next day saw him climbing with confidence up to his cave and taking his seat. After a little while he realized that all was not well. His thoughts started to slow down. Occasionally, a pleasant thought would come to mind and he would decide to follow it for a while. But soon it dried up. He tried to think grand thoughts, philosophical speculations, to worry about the state of the universe. Anything. He started to run low on things to think about and even got a little bored. Where had all his thinking gone ? Soon the "best" thoughts he could get seemed a little worn, like an old coat that had become threadbare. Then he noticed gaps in his thinking. Oh dear, this was what he had been told to avoid. Another failure. At the end of the day he felt pretty wretched. He'd failed again.

He climbed down the mountain and went to find his teacher, who burst out laughing again. "Congratulations ! Wonderful! Now you know how to practice perfectly." He didn't understand why the teacher was so pleased. What on earth had he learned ? The teacher was pleased because the novice was now ready to recognize something of real significance: You cannot force the mind . And if you try to , you won't like what comes of it.


ferret said...

But your mind can force you! I'm not able to place how i can fit this into the story.
Neverthless, loved what you wrote. And the fact that you are writing so regularly :)

Ankit said...

Hey "Ferret"!
Yes, the mind has a mind of its own. Realizing that in itself is the first step towards taming this beast. :) I guess most of us can place ourselves into this story if we just stop for a moment and observe if we are really in control of our mind.

Yeah, writing regularly. But this story has been copied from some other source. Felt like sharing.

Id it is said...

I enjoyed the story but I'm not sure I agree with the message at the end :)

Ankit said...

Hey "Id it is"!
I trust you have good reasons to not agree with the message at the end. :) As this story belongs to Zen folklore and Zen is a tradition based on self-experience rather than accepting any philosophy, I would gently recommend that you try doing this for [as told in story] for just 10 min. :)